Canadian pilgrims sit outside the entrance to the seating area at Cuatro Vientos after being told people were no longer being allowed in.

Quarter million pilgrims disappointed after being refused entry to papal Mass

By 
  • August 22, 2011

MADRID, SPAIN - Hugo Lage had been looking forward to the papal vigil, overnight sleep and closing Mass at Cuatro Vientos aerodrome for months. It is, after all, the culmination of World Youth Day. But his experience couldn't have been further from what he was expecting.

Lage was one of the estimated 250,000 pilgrims who were denied access to the Cuatro Vientos aerodome, despite having paid for seating.

"I came from Brazil and this is the moment we're all waiting for," Lage, 21, told The Catholic Register. "I tried so hard to get my seating — near the front of the stage — and now I can't even get in the worst place to see the Pope."

Many people were not able to enter the site because numbers far exceeded what organizers expected, said Fr. Thomas Rosica, CEO of Salt + Light Television and national director and CEO of World Youth Day 2002 in Toronto, via e-mail.

"1.4 million people showed up and they were never really equipped to handle more than one million," said Christian Elia, director of the Office of Catholic Youth.

"It's very disappointing," said Elia. "In terms of execution, people have been suspecting for many months now — if not for over a year — that there were some serious problems from an organizational standpoint with World Youth Day Madrid. But I was hopeful."

While some things were out of organizers' control, such as the freak violent storm that hit while rejected pilgrims made their way off site, there were other things that should never have happened.

"In terms of running out of food and water, there's no excuse," he said. "We just found out that no communion is being distributed at the papal Mass because the pathways are all blocked and the communion tent is destroyed."

Italian pilgrim Alessandro Baldessari, 21, said he was tired and scared as he made the long walk out of Cuatro Vientos.

Alessandro Baldessari, an Italian pilgrim, calls his friends to find out where they are--and how they can meet up amidst the massive crowds exiting the aerodome."We just don't know what to do… We had a long journey, a few days of walking and now we can't really support the occasion," he said.

Krystal Pereira, 25, was one of the Toronto pilgrims who made it into the Cuatro Vientos venue — but once her group was inside, all they were focused on was their exit strategy.

"When we got to our section, the volunteers told us we needed to go somewhere else because it was full," said Pereira. They decided to leave as they were split up from their fellow group members.

"Before we started to leave it started to pour and we were getting completely drenched," she said. "We were walking out of there and it started to become chaotic. It was a little scary. People were becoming more of a mob because of the numbers.

"We didn't see washrooms anywhere and many of the food stations were sold out," said Pereira.

Neiman D'Souza, a seminarian at St. Augstine's Seminary and Elia's assistant on the OCY pilgrimage, said the contrast between the experience of the seminarian Mass with the Pope and the vigil was shocking.

But World Youth Day is not about the events, it's about the pilgrims, said D'Souza.

"We saw an event going haywire and we saw the pilgrims survive, we saw the pilgrims resilient," he said.

D'Souza said that despite the chaos, the group shared a moment that was very heartwarming.

"All the gates were locked, we couldn't get in and then one of the pilgrims suggested we pray the evening prayer together," he said.

Fr. Edwin Galea, who is travelling with the Office of Catholic Youth, said the fact there was a major logistical problem is not the end of the world.

"The experience has been very, very good so far and the sense of community, solidarity, unity and faith is a positive aspect of any adventure," said Galea, pastor of Toronto's St. Maria Goretti parish.

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